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Author tackles racist history of modern medicine, maternal mortality at UB event

Deirdre Cooper Owens during her Keynote Address for the University at Buffalo's Beyond the Knife event
Thomas O'Neil-White
Deirdre Cooper Owens during her Keynote Address for the University at Buffalo's Beyond the Knife event

Maternal mortality rates for Black women continues to be a widespread problem in the United States where according to the C.D.C. Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

According to a New York State Department of Health study released in 2020 Erie County had one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the state from 2007 to 2016 and for a three year period beginning in 2016 infant mortality rates were nearly three times higher for Black babies than white babies.

NYS Department of Health figures for birthing rates in Erie County
University at Buffalo
NYS Department of Health figures for birthing rates in Erie County

There is a maternal birthing crises among Black women said Author and Historian Dierdre Cooper Owens. She puts historical context to her belief that the vestiges of slavery and racism are still alive in the field of medicine in the 21st century during her Keynote Address for the University at Buffalo Department of Surgery’s Beyond the Knife series Thursday evening

“What I want to talk about is the legacy of medical racism and this maternal health crisis because unfortunately that didn't go away,” she said in her opening remarks.

Cooper Owens book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology discusses how advances in medicine upon the backs of slaves helps to understand the problems Black women face today.

“If we're looking at sources from enslaved people, they were not allowed to read and write, it was illegal,” she said. “So they're not going to leave sources. But guess what I can do, I can extract information from the folk who owned them and treated them. And the wonderful thing about the history of slavery is that there's some speculative creativity that we have. So we may not be able to have all the answers, but we can ask some really good questions.”

Cooper Owens sees a stark difference in how Black women were viewed and invested in during slavery versus how they are treated today.

“People were much more interested in black women's reproductive care because they were interested in the price tag on the heads of the children that these women produced for the continuation of slavery,” she said of the insincere way treated women in bondage. “All of a sudden the very women that you would give blankets to because they had twins and produced a number of children now they are irresponsible they are promiscuous, they are baby mamas, they are welfare queens.”

Former Democratic-endorsed mayoral candidate India Walton, a panelist for the event , said her difficulty in birthing two of her sons speaks to the intersection of race and class and how many Black women are mistrusted in knowing their own bodies.

“I also discovered that my negative experiences with healthcare were not the result of individual biases but rather systems that have been built to exclude certain people from certain communities in certain social statuses,” she said.

The mistrust goes beyond class as global celebrities like Beyonce and tennis star Serena Williams have talked publicly about their own pregnancy struggles, where they believed they weren’t listened to by their physicians.

If understanding the history is the first step in trying to dismantle systemic racism within the medical community, what is the second step?

Cooper Owens has a simple answer for medical professionals:

“Listen to your patient. I mean that's number one,” she said. “And then treat your patients with respect and concern.”

And for med students who want to use their position to end race-based medicine and establish equitable care across the board, Cooper Owens had this to say:

“For black people, they don't want you to come up with some magic trick,” she said. “They're simply saying if other populations aren't dying and suffering these complications can you just apply that to us. We just want to live, we just want to have the same quality of care. We want to thrive.”

In 2020 the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine formalized a resolution designed to acknowledge and respond to the race-based violence perpetrated against African Americans. The Beyond the Knife series was established following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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